At 6 pm on March 20, a knot of about two dozen black-clad activists approached a handful of Portland motorcycle cops who'd been tasked with halting the marchers before they occupied the Steel Bridge in their stated goal to "shut Portland down."
Confrontations between protesters and police in Portland go back decades, but activists, officers and reporters were about to witness something new. The small group had prepared for this moment: Many wore bicycle helmets, knee pads, ski goggles, bandannas or gas masks. Many carried shields made of plywood, like modern-day English knights. Even their banners, which were framed with what appeared to be PVC piping, bore slogans that advertised a new seriousness: "Shut It Down" and "All Bets Are Off."
For years, small groups of activists have taunted police during political demonstrations, even tossing an occasional plastic water bottle or toilet-paper roll their way in hopes of provoking an aggressive response. But this time, instead of halting at the police line, the protesters gathered together and surged forward, phalanx-like, using their banners as a battering ram against the line of startled cops.
While news helicopters circled overhead, the officers frantically pushed back while retreating to avoid being trampled. Then, to slow the advance of the hostile mob, officers used batons and retractable clubs to hit protesters through and over the signs. Some of the protesters punched back. At least one motorcycle was knocked over during the clash, and an officer suffered a gash to the head requiring 10 stitches.
The protesters' assault had a predictable result: a police backlash in which cop reinforcements unleashed red-pepper spray not just on the violent clique, but on innocent bystanders. One middle-aged man, sprayed in the face, fell to his knees and vomited a stream of whitish goo onto the pavement. For several seconds afterward, an officer bearing the nametag "Luiz" continued spraying into the prone man's face, the only clear-cut case of police misconduct witnessed by this reporter at the scene.
Meanwhile, some protesters wasted no time in exploiting the melee for propaganda purposes. A 6:23 pm posting on portland.indymedia.org falsely claimed the police started the fight. "The cops started beating people with their sticks and the people started fighting back, with the result of one cop having a bloody face," read the posting on the do-it-yourself site favored by anti-war activists.
Several activist and police sources told WW they had neither seen nor heard of anything like the protesters' charge on police at the Steel Bridge. The tactic, which appeared premeditated, represents a significant escalation in the protest tactics used in Portland.
While the vast majority of protesters remain peaceful and nonviolent, a rumor circulating among Portland lefties has it that a small group of extremists has been recruiting impressionable teenagers to fight the police. A subset of what is known as the "black bloc," a disorganized group of self-described anarchists, this tiny faction reportedly hopes to emulate its European counterparts--who regularly battle the cops in large-scale demonstrations/street brawls.
Veteran activists contacted by WW said that in the context of a war that violates international law and kills innocent civilians, it's understandable that emotions are running high. Dan Handelman, a volunteer with Peace and Justice Works, an anti-war group, and Copwatch--a group that often criticizes the use of force by police--stopped short of condemning the Thursday-night tactics, saying only that "it's not something that Peace and Justice Works would do."
Others, however, characterized the Steel Bridge action as not only dumb but unethical, since it endangered not just cops but innocent bystanders who didn't know of the group's violent plans. It also exposed young protesters to potential Measure 11 charges, meaning years in state prison.
Dave Mazza, editor of the Portland Alliance, called the tactics "shortsighted," saying they might be gratifying in the short-term, but "in the long term it's really detrimental. You wind up isolating yourself."
Lawyer Alan Graf says he's hearing many reports of police brutality in the past week's demonstrations--but he still conceded, "I don't think violence against the police is going to help the peace movement."
Cops aren't the only ones who now find themselves on the defensive. A small segment of protesters is increasingly using intimidation and interference to disrupt TV news broadcasts. Last Thursday night, for the first time, KATU employed armed guards to protect their trucks from vandalism. KGW went even further, sending guards out into the crowd with each news crew.
Even reporters who documented past police abuses, such as photojournalist Beth English, are now being targeted by protesters. During an anti-Bush rally on Aug. 22, English braved a faceful of pepper spray to capture footage at the centerpiece of a powerful KPTV broadcast that appears to have helped change Portland police crowd-control policy.
These days, the attacks on English more frequently come from a different direction. "We get spit on and yelled at," English said in an interview last Friday. "I got spit on yesterday.... It blows my mind. The more [protesters] act out to us, the worse they look."
"I think any observer would have to say that there's more antagonism toward the media than there has been in past years," said Rod Gramer, KGW's news director. "We hired the guards to keep our crews safe, to make sure that they could do their job without being physically attacked."
On Nov. 17, police had to intervene to rescue KOIN reporter David Okarski, who, according to police reports, was attacked by a hostile mob of "peace" protesters in front of the Justice Center.
This is not the only apparent contradiction.
On March 15, as demonstrators took over three lanes of the Morrison Bridge, two "peace" protesters menaced an independent filmmaker until he turned off his camera. And KOIN cameraman Lory "Ole" Olson recalls that even as the crowd chanted "This is what democracy looks like," some demonstrators were telling him to get off the bridge. "They're not living up to their beliefs," he says.
Some of the most active in taking away the rights of mainstream journalists are quick to claim those rights for themselves. In a recent interview with WW, Deva, a regular contributor to portland.indymedia.org, complained that Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker doesn't give Indymedia activists the same respect as he gives other journalists.
And yet at the March 15 protest, Deva not only blocked the lens of a KGW cameraman, but also aggressively bumped him to block his path. Furthermore, during last Thursday's protests, another Indymedia contributor named Jeremy, or "Spark," blocked TV cameras with a shield on his arm painted with the words "Fuck Corporate Media."
Grilled on his views, Deva said there was no contradiction in his political views and his own efforts to interfere with news coverage. "Corporate media, the mainstream media does not tell the truth," Deva said. "I don't believe they should be allowed to film political actions out on the street."
Isn't it hypocritical to blast Bush's censorship of media in Iraq while conducting a version of it at home? "That's a very different thing," Deva claims. "You have to look at the balance of power in these situations. I have no power."
For others, the issue is not whether protesters have power, but how they use it. "I have a problem if they physically assault our people or go after our equipment" says KATU news director Mike Rausch. "I just think that's fundamentally wrong."